NEWTON — Denied his rightful place on the field when Boston College played Southern schools in 1939 and 1940, Lou Montgomery will now have a presence at every Eagles home game.
As BC’s first black football player, Montgomery sat out a half-dozen games in his final two seasons as a star halfback. During the Jim Crow era, segregated schools wouldn’t step onto the field if their opponents’ team had black players.
On Saturday, Montgomery’s family gathered at midfield during halftime of BC’s opening game against Miami as his jersey was retired and displayed on the southwest façade of Alumni Stadium, three to the left of Doug Flutie’s retired number.
Montgomery’s daughter Joanne Montgomery of Los Angeles, who was there on the field, said in an interview before the game that she hoped that what her father endured would give “young African-American males and females hope that they can use their gifts and their talents” without having “to experience anything like my daddy went though.”
Montgomery’s jersey hangs some 80 yards away from lettering on the upper deck of stands that heralds BC’s trips to the Cotton Bowl in 1939 and the Sugar Bowl in 1940.
“Tragically, because of the severe and unjust racial segregation customs of that era, Lou Montgomery was not allowed to participate in either of those post-season games,” the stadium announcer said, and Montgomery’s family turned to watch the unveiling. “Rising above that unspeakable prejudice, Lou Montgomery never compromised his own high principles, his undaunted spirit, or his unwavering support of his teammates and fellow Boston College students.”
Montgomery was “very hurt and very upset” at being benched during several games but never angry, his daughter said.
“From my point of view, I believe it’s a wonderful way the Lord has vindicated him after all these 70 years,” she said.
Many interviewed in the stadium welcomed the recognition, but said it was long overdue.
“We’re proud he has a chance to be honored like this, and we’ll give him a standing ovation,” Russ Joyner of Las Vegas, who is black and was a captain for the Eagles’ football team in 1982, said before the ceremony.
A BC junior from Denver, Tiera Brown, said “As an African-American myself, it makes me proud.”
“It is inconceivable that that could have happened,” Peter Osbourne of Tampa said of what Montgomery endured.
Mark Dullea, a BC graduate and a friend of the Montgomery family, has pushed for the college to address the injustice of decades past.
Dullea, who was on the field with the family Saturday, thinks BC should rename Alumni Stadium in honor of Montgomery, whose daughter said her father “always taught us that a good name is better to be had than all the silver and the gold and riches on this earth.”
“He has a good name and it’s being presented to the public now,” Joanne Montgomery said. “A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children, and I believe my dad has left a rich inheritance by leaving his good name.”
Montgomery, who died in 1993, at 72, of complications from a stroke, has since been inducted into the Boston College Hall of Fame.
A few days after Boston College lost to Clemson, 6-3, in the 1940 Cotton Bowl, the Veterans of Foreign Wars presented a sportsmanship medal to Montgomery — for not playing.
He had withdrawn voluntarily from traveling with the Eagles to the game, which was played in Dallas.
“The love of the game superseded the hatred of the people, which I think really speaks volumes about what my grandfather was like as a person,” said his granddaughter Tracey Riley of Los Angeles.
Jim Crow laws weren’t the only obstacles that Montgomery, a ball carrier whose fleet, dazzling running made up for his small stature, couldn’t elude. In an era when casual racism was part of everyday language, the Globe referred to him once as “the mahogany midget.”
Recruited out of Brockton, where he had been the high school team’s only black starting player, Montgomery became Boston College’s first black football player.
“I was used to being the only one or the first one,” Montgomery told the Globe in a 1987 interview.
“My Grandpa was a pioneer,” his granddaughter said before Saturday’s game. “There has to be a first always, somebody had to go out on a limb to make change happen. Thank God for people like my grandfather.”
Charles H. Martin, who wrote “Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890-1980,” told the Globe in April that his research shows Montgomery was excluded from more contests than any other black athlete playing for a school in the North.
Because Montgomery was benched for games against Southern teams at a time when Boston College was trying to elevate its football stature, Martin said BC sacrificed “ethics concerning one African-American player in pursuit of this higher glory of national recognition.”
Reid Oslin, formerly a longtime sports information director at Boston College, has written two books on the history of the school’s football program.
Oslin noted that although Montgomery “was a major contributor to the great football success of those days,” he was benched for games against southern teams several years before Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in Major League Baseball.
“It’s awful when you look back on it today,” Oslin said, but the mere fact that Boston College had a black starting player then “was a bit of a pioneering move.”
“We’ve come a long way since then,” he added, “and thank God for that.”